Two Must-Sees at the Met

“Jolly Flatboatmen in Port”, George Caleb Bingham, 1857

A quick shout-out for two exhibitions I caught over the weekend at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both seemingly calculated to appeal to this correspondent.

Having just finished reading Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, I was particularly primed to appreciate Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River (up through September 20). The image above may be Bingham’s best known painting (at least, it’s the one I already knew. I think it adorned my copy of Bernard DeVoto’s Across the Wide Missouri). At any rate the Twain book enhanced my appreciation of the exhibition like a piece of cheese goes with an apple. Twain of course wrote about his time on the Mississippi piloting steam boats. Though Bingham does show a couple of steamboats, most of his imagery depicts the more idyllic, romantic flatboats which were the primary river-borne freight carriers prior to the steam age (though they continued to play a useful role long after). The typical Bingham genre painting features cheerful flatboatmen in open-collared blouses with billowing sleeves, usually sporting either a broad brimmed hat, a topper, or a wool cap.  There is a clean look to them, with an emphasis on form and technique and beauty (perhaps my point will be better made if I say instead “a lack of ugliness”) which brings ihis work within a gnat’s-cough of kitsch, though whether it or it isn’t, that’s okay with me. They’re almost always shown with a happy expression, either in an attitude of tranquil and peaceful repose, or dancing and celebrating. No one’s ever grumbling about his crummy job as a day laborer. Alongside the finished paintings are many of the sketches and studies that led up to them, and in most cases I found his pencil and pen work to be better than the finished product (details like facial expressions and folds in clothing are much finer in the sketches). Some added bonuses: a period river panorama is depicted (on video screen), and we get to see some of the daguerreotypes that Bingham made of his work for reference after he sold the paintings off.

Sargent's portrait of Joseph Jefferson
Sargent’s portrait of Joseph Jefferson

Also of interest to readers of this blog, I should think, is the current Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, on view through October 4. I’ve already raved about Madame X here (va va voom!) and she’s on view here, and so are portraits of many painters and writers, but of course I was especially interested in his depictions of showfolk including the theatre’s perennial “Rip Van Winkle” Joseph Jefferson, Edwin Booth, Ellen Terry (as Lady MacBeth), and Ada Rehan. I also loved a three part series he did of the striking and strange Robert Louis Stevenson. 

More details about both shows and everything else at the Met are at http://www.metmuseum.org/ .

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